Some people, when they think about family history research, probably form a mental picture of Great-Aunt Hilda driving to a remote, small-town graveyard in Iowa to search for information on tombstones. Maybe for others it’s an image of shelves of dusty photo albums and old journals in the basement at grandpa’s house.
Like just about everything else in the world today, however, family history and genealogy research has been dramatically changed by the rapid advance of information technology. As people spend more and more time connecting to the world around them via computers and the Internet, some of them are doing family history work without even realizing it.
“I talk to people who say, ‘I’m not interested in family history,’ ” said Paul Nauta, publicist for FamilySearch, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’s online family history portal. “Yet they’re on Facebook two hours a day.” That is to say, sharing photos and personal anecdotes with friends and family — exactly the sorts of things that go into a journal or scrapbook.
It’s precisely that sort of convergence between family history and technology that organizers of the first ever RootsTech family history and technology conference are hoping to showcase, and encourage. The conference, to be held Feb. 10-12 at Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, is for tech-heads and family history enthusiasts alike. (For those interested in attending, the early registration deadline is Jan. 15.)
“We’re interested in anyone who has a passion for technology,” said Anne Roach, a chairwoman for the RootsTech conference.
The conference will let family history researchers and genealogists get the latest information about upgrades and new products, but organizers are hoping that “technology creators” will also benefit by learning firsthand about what people who use family history technology would like it to do for them.
“Genealogists are some of the most technologically savvy people I’ve met,” Roach said. She hopes that feedback from savvy “technology users” will be a gold mine for product developers.
RootsTech is an umbrella event, of sorts, pulling together the elements of three existing conferences under one roof. Two Brigham Young University events, the Conference on Computerized Family History and the Technology Workshop, as well as the FamilySearch Developers Conference, were all combined to form RootsTech, which is planned to be an annual event going forward.
John Best, a BYU event manager who is also a RootsTech conference chairman, said that people who have attended the three events separately in the past are among those who will benefit most from the new format. “We’re still offering the same things that users had before,” Best said, “but now we’re bringing them all together and offering some new things.”
One of the best reasons to attend RootsTech, Best said, is to stay abreast of changes in family history software and Web-based utilities. “There are very few programs that stay the same year after year,” he said.
On the other hand, the conference is also for family history novices, as well as those who never before have been involved in family history. “That, for me, is one of the primary purposes of the conference,” Best said. “We want to attract and bring in people who haven’t gotten started yet. We want them to see that, ‘Hey, the technology is not so scary after all.’ ”
And though RootsTech is primarily sponsored by FamilySearch, and FamilySearch is owned by the LDS Church, which strongly encourages members to pursue family history and genealogy interests, the new conference is anything but especially for Mormons.
(Other sponsors include Microsoft, Dell, The Federation of Genealogical Societies, Ancestry.com, Brigham Young University, the National Genealogical Society, American Ancestors and U.K. Web tech firm BrightSolid.)
Nauta said that, while FamilySearch doesn’t track information about users’ religious affiliation, site usage and traffic statistics, as well as user feedback, suggest that the “vast majority” of FamilySearch users are not Latter-day Saints.
“People just naturally have an interest in their heritage and want to know more about where they come from,” he said. “We just happen to be a massive resource to scratch that itch.”
Do you need a Second Life?
Family history research hasn’t always required a computer. “When you look at old photographs from family history libraries,” Roach said, “the technology that you see is nothing more than a typewriter, a camera and an electric light.”
In 2011, however, technology and family history are interwoven in ways that go far beyond using a computer program to fill out a pedigree chart. One example of that, Roach said, is the virtual world Second Life, an online environment where people create avatars to represent themselves and live, work and play — entirely in a digital realm.
It sounds like an unlikely resource for family history and genealogy, but Roach said that family history groups are already using it. “People who don’t live in the same state or city can interact with each other and give presentations,” she said. “Someone who lives in a remote area in Australia can participate in real time with a society or group meeting halfway across the world.”
There are other platforms that can facilitate such real-time interactions, but Second Life, at least for now, offers much of its services for free. Some presenters at the conference won’t even be present, or at least not physically. Roach said that some groups and individuals will participate remotely using videoconferencing tools like Skype.
One presentation at RootsTech, Roach said, will focus on helping individuals understand how to create and expand a “medical family tree,” or family health history. “That type of information is important for anyone whether or not they’re interested in family history and genealogy” she said.
You can find out all about what will be happening at RootsTech by visiting its website (of course there’s a website): rootstech.familysearch.org. Whether your interest is in family history and genealogy, or you skew more toward cool new technology, there’s no need to feel intimidated by what you find there.
Nauta has been a family history professional for years, he said, yet “quite frankly, I would say most of the things planned for discussion are new to me.”